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Prostitution: Ambivalence in Africa and beyond

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A lot has been said about prostitution in both local and international media. The practice has been linked to human trafficking and modern-day slavery, to patriarchy, abuse, and exploitation of women, to crimes and social vices in the communities. There has been a lot of focus on Nigerian prostitutes who are trapped in the sex trade in different parts of Europe. Laws and policies have been introduced to regulate prostitution in different countries. State and moral police have been constituted. And these security operatives have carried out raids and made arrests, prosecuting and penalizing prostitutes or those linked to the practice. However, the practice persists in places across the world. In fact, the oldest profession in human history is showing no sign of disappearing.  Drawing from examples from societies in Africa, Europe, and the United States, this piece argues that efforts to regulate prostitution are fraught with contradictions because what the law says is not in sync with what happens in real life. In some cases, the laws that apply in countries are different and these differences have made it difficult to combat and eradicate what is often designated as illicit sex trade.

In Nigeria, prostitution is against the law. Establishment of brothels is a crime. In fact, any bill to legalize commercial sex work in Nigeria will certainly be dismissed. It will be unanimously rejected. Law and policy makers are likely to argue that such a law violates the religious and cultural values of the people. However, this disposition says very little in terms of what goes on in real life. In terms of the everyday experiences, the situation is different. Prostitution is condoned and tolerated in various forms and manners. Paying for sex in cash or in kind is part of day-to-day social relationships. Although the operation of brothels is prohibited, brothels exist in cities across Nigeria. Although many places are officially called hotels, they are actually brothels and provide operating spaces for commercial sex workers. No clear demarcating lines exist. People on the streets in Lagos, Ibadan, Owerri, Port Harcourt or Calabar, in Abuja or Lokoja identified which hotels in these places were brothels or quasi-brothels.

They knew which part of the town and at what time- commercial sex workers could be found. In fact they could point at prospective buyers and sellers. Even in sharia implementing regions, knowledge of where and when to find sex workers was available. People knew where the purchase of sex could be done, the slangs used in negotiating the deals, sometimes the range of costs. And at these designated places including certain street corners, public squares and junctions, at nightclubs, and at designated times; there were covert and overt transactions. Those wanting to buy or sell sex negotiated and tried to get a better deal. The rich and the elite members of the societies including policymakers who would openly and publicly oppose any move to decriminalize prostitution patronized these places. Foreigners, both white and black from countries where hiring or paying for sex is against the law were there.

Sex buyers came in posh cars and sometimes from their car windows, they negotiated prices. Sometimes, they sent their boys or girls as the case may be who did the negotiation for them. The errand boys and girls tried to get sex workers who met the taste of their bosses, sex traders that fit into what their Ogas-the lawmakers, politicians and business men and some times women- wanted and delivered them at agreed locations usually hotel apartments in the big cities, occasionally in their residential houses.

Boys or girls who negotiated sex on behalf of the big men were usually those who were financially less privileged and who relied on such transactions for extra income or to keep their jobs with their bosses or their companies. More corporate sex workers called aristos in some parts of Nigeria negotiated via phone calls and texting. Also known as call girls or boys, the corporate prostitutes did not stand at special locations. They operated from their residences waiting to be called or to be seen. The call girls or boys operated part time. They were usually students who combined sex work and their studies. Most youths and females were unemployed or underemployed and did not want to have sex for free. They did not want to catch fun for the sake of it. People did not want to have sex for pleasure but for profit, for financial or material gain. They preferred to be paid. These people went to nightclubs, bars and gardens, not actually to dance or drink but to hustle, to look for some buyers of sex, to solicit for customers. Selling sex was a way of earning or supplementing their income.

Those who bought or paid for sex, usually the elite members of the society, the law and policymakers, the businessmen and women and politicians used the issue of prostitution to assert power. They blocked efforts to decriminalize sex work at the parliament thereby presenting themselves as custodians of the social and moral values. At the same time, these big men and women also were the main financiers of the sex trade. They are the highest bidders. Opposing the decriminalization of prostitution put these sex buyers in a stronger position to negotiate and purchase sex at their own price and on their own terms. These contradicting scenarios play out in other conservative countries and in capital cities in Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Gambia and in other places in Africa. Even in apparently liberal societies of the West, these contradictions also manifest. For instance, in Europe, there is a distinction between the Scandinavian approach and the German approach. In the Scandinavian societies, the buyer is the criminal. While in Germany or in the Netherlands, the buyer is not criminalized. That means the act of buying sex, however that is defined, is both legal and illegal in Europe. It only depends on the country where one is. Meanwhile, people on the streets talked about other ways and means of selling or buying sex including websites that people used to contact prospective sellers and buyers. People talked about how sex was bought without explicitly saying so. In places where commercial sex work was legal and workers were taxed, people talked about other ways that people used to engage in the sex trade and were able to secure payment in cash or in kind.
 
Despite the differences in laws, prostitution served a useful purpose especially for refugees and foreigners in European societies. Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants struggle financially as they try to legalize their stay. Prostitution provided a means of supplementing income or securing relevant documents that they needed to live in these places. For instance, refugees tried to marry citizens or legal residents by attending to their sexual needs. Female asylum seekers tried to become pregnant for citizens or legal residents, they did whatever they could do to sexually satisfy their clients. Male asylum seekers tried to make citizens or legal residents pregnant in order to acquire papers. In the desperate attempt to have legal documents and avoid deportation, refugees and asylum seekers got involved in all forms of the sex trade, business, and bartering. To citizens in these countries, prostitution or other forms of commercial sex work provided them a wide variety of sexual choice, market options that they used and exploited. Prostitution was empowering and helped migrants gain legitimate status. It was also a mechanism that reaffirmed the unequal power and bargaining relation between the refugees/migrant and people in the host countries.

This contradiction in the regulation of prostitution also applies to the United States. Contrary to popular perception, the US is not a sexually liberal country. Too often people are misled by what they watch on the television or how real or imagined Americans sexually conduct themselves in African cities. Compared to European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, the US is largely a conservative nation, at least going by what its laws say regarding prostitution. People on the streets said that it was only in Nevada, to be specific in the city of Sin, Las Vegas, that commercial sex work was allowed under the law in the US. Even in Las Vegas, people on the street said that it was only in some parts of the city that brothels could be established.

So in the US, prostitution is both legal and illegal at the same time. It depends on which state/city that one is.  The sex trade is allowed in one state but disallowed in the other. Brothelling can be done in some parts of a city but not in others. In states where prostitution is outlawed, these contradictions were also manifest. For instance, in the state of Indiana, people on the streets stated that prostitution was against the law. But at the state capital, Indianapolis, people on the street pointed out parts of the city where one could buy or sell sex. They noted the exact time-and certain places-when those selling sex could be found. People also indicated some websites where prospective buyers could go to place a call and negotiate payments and transactions. These websites advertised telephone numbers of prostitutes and calls to those numbers could lead to negotiation of payments with prospective sellers or with security operatives posing as prostitutes. Such calls could eventually lead to the arrest and prosecution of callers. So a prostitutional behavior that is allowed in one US city and state could lead to arrest, prosecution or imprisonment in another US city or state.
 
In conclusion, prostitution is a complex issue and its complexity is manifested in the way that prostitution is regulated and practiced in societies across the world. There is a huge gap between what is allowed or not allowed under the law in different countries and what transpires in everyday life. It is important to understand, untangle and situate these complexities and contradictions in order to come up with effective means of addressing the issue of the sex trade in Nigeria, Africa, and the world.


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